Romancing the Stone: Memorable Musings About Meerschaum
Romancing the Stone: Memorable Musings About Meerschaum
Ben Rapaport, June 2022
Exclusive to pipedia.org
I am not qualified to judge the merits of pipe tobaccos, so this is not a review of three blends named Meerschaum: Cornell & Diehl’s IMP English blend, “Meerschaum Magic,” “Rich’s Meerschaum,” and House of Calabash’s “For Meerschaums Only.” (There are many more blends named “Missouri Meerschaum.”) I defer reviews of pipe tobacco brands to those more knowledgeable than I.
But I am qualified to write about meerschaum, that soft, white mineral with the chemical formula Mg4Si6O15(OH)2·6H2O—and occasionally written as 2H202Mg03Si02—that hydrous magnesium silicate steeped in mystique, mystery and misunderstanding. If you read a book on jewels and stones, you’ll discover that meerschaum is included among the Galactites or Milk Stones, whatever they are. In Precious Stones: For Curative Wear; and Other Remedial Uses (1907), the author, Dr. W. T. Fernie, notes that “Meerschaum—being a Silicate of magnesium—perhaps owes to this occult formation the universal favour in which it is held for their pipes by smokers of choice tobaccos.” For sure, meerschaum is not cuttlefish bone. It’s not the fossilized shells of ancient sea life that collected and compressed over millions of years. But Tinder Box seems to believe this, according to its website: “The mineral itself is the fossilized shells of tiny sea creatures that fell to the ocean floor over 50 million years ago, there to be covered and compressed over the ages by layer upon layer of silt. Profound movements in the earths [sic] crust raised the creamy white stone of Meerschaum above sea level.” (What’s profound is this lack of understanding about meerschaum by a company that’s been in business for almost a century!)
The debate about what meerschaum is and what to call it is very complicated. I do not intend to visit old assertions and beliefs, but I offer this short overview. Descriptors for meerschaum from assorted sources are cuttlefish, sepiolite, hydrous silicate of magnesia, magnesite, kreidemassen (German), fuller’s earth, Turkish earth, lületaşi (Turkish), keffekil/kefftil/kilkeffi (allegedly a Tatar word modified by the Turks), myrsen (of questionable origin), and poetic terms, such as white gold, curly stone, sea froth, scum of the sea, sea surf, and sea foam (in English, mere [a lake], and scum. Confused? Does the following help to clarify? “Meerschaum, then, as we need hardly perhaps explain, is German for Sea-foam. We English have made a naturalised citizen of the German word. Other countries have adopted it in translation only; and we confess to wishing we had done the same, and as the Plant suggested, had called our Meerschaums ‘Sea-foam Pipes.’ Not even this is an accurate version of the original native term,—Kill-Kéffi, which in English would be ‘Foam-clay;’ in German Schaumthon” (Cope’s Mixture, Cope’s Smoke Room Booklets. Number Eight, 1893). If you’re keen to understand how so many could be so confused for so long about this mineral and what to call it, read my treatise “Lost in Translation: The Linguistic Hodgepodge of Mg4Si6O15(OH)2·6H2O” on pipedia.org. And there are many (fairy) tales about when and how this medium came to be used for pipes that are not worth reprising here, because they are unfounded.
So, why Romancing the Stone? “Romancing the Stone” was a 1984 movie with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, and the stone was the Bahia Emerald, El Corazón (“The Heart”), an 840-pound, 180,000-carat treasure. Meerschaum, the smoker’s stone, is the stone I want to romance! Accounting for everything in print (books, manuscripts, theses, and articles) about briar—the wood or the pipe—and about meerschaum—the mineral or the pipe—I’ve discovered, the quantity of prose citations and lyric, narrative, and dramatic poetry of the latter far outnumbers those of the former. Poets and philosophers alike drew solace and inspiration from pipes; the topic of meerschaum, a century ago, drew the attention of many known and amateur poets who were smokers.
Consider that the word meerschaum has a rather exotic and enchanting ring. It is a poetic figure of speech, and it has been described as the aristocracy among smoking pipes; the queen of pipes; soft and light as a fleeting dream; creamy, delicate, and sweet as the complexion of young maidenhood; one of the choicest and rarest gifts of the gods; and the “apple of the eye” of the refined pipe smoker. It has also been called Venus of the Sea, White Goddess or, as defined by King Media, Farnoo, or the froth-of-the-sea, an unctuous, argillaceous substance.
What’s been written about briar has been, for the most part, history, facts, information, data, hardly anything inspirational, lighthearted, or amusing. In My Lady Nicotine, James Barrie asserted that the briar is the king of pipes. Sidney Ram (How to Get More Fun Out of Smoking) wrote: “King Briar stands unsurpassed at the head of the many pipe smoking materials.” “…it was the briar pipe, with its clean, modern lines and sturdy practicality, that became a symbol of middle-class masculinity, used and carried by the architect, the bowler-hatted businessman and the professor alike” (Anna Moran and Sorcha O’Brien, eds., Love Objects. Emotion, Design and Material Culture, 2014). There’s one online outlier, a certain Chris who knows the rightful king: “And while Macarthur’s oversized corncob pipe and your grandfather’s traditional briar pipe are certainly pipe smoking classics, nothing reflects the character of the smoker more than a meerschaum (“The King of Pipes: The Meerschaum,” artofmanliness.com).
A king trumps a queen in card games and in the order of royal precedence, but you won’t find many characterizations of briar in print that are as picturesque, graphic, or dramatic as the prose and poetry that have celebrated meerschaum. Since briar’s introduction in the mid-19th century, it has been more popular than the meerschaum and is almost universally smoked. It is not only a major rival to a meerschaum, it’s also considered the traditional smoke, the everyman’s pipe, but it has not been glorified with the same frequency, passion, and devotion as its competitor.
Could it be that meerschaum was a more glamorous, fanciful, or exotic topic? Was it because the 19th century was an era of romanticism in art and literature? Chronologically, Modernism began around 1850; the Gilded Age began much later in the century. And the 1800s was the century in which the poetic prefix “a” was all the rage, e.g., atop, aglow, adrift, etc., words that adorned meerschaum poetry quite often. Of course, beginning in the early 20th century when the briar acceded to the throne, and well into the 21st century, the prevalence of both prose and poetry about meerschaum began to wane dramatically; today, it’s almost non-existent.
To demonstrate my thesis, I’ll begin with books.
Prose (Non-Fiction and Fiction)
To get a sensing of the early interest in meerschaum, these were the relevant treatises of the period.
|An Old Smoker||The Art of Colouring a Meerschaum Arranged in 12 Rules (1864)|
|An Old Harrovian (Sir D. Straight)||Musings Over My Meerschaum (1866)|
|Anon.||The Meerschaum. How to Choose, Smoke and Colour it (1867)|
|Amator Fumi||Meerschaums and How to Colour Them (1871)|
There’s at least one piece of fiction, D. C. Murray, An Old Meerschaum (c. 1900) and the most recent is a chapbook by L. A. Lewis, The Meerschaum Pipe (2019).
Now to an assortment of quotations, opinions, and pronouncements from assorted works of literature, presented chronologically.
“The meerschaum is cherished by the true smoker with as much care as a pet child: when new, he covers it up in a little case of soft leather that it may not be scratched, and he smokes it regularly and with great caution, that it may take an equal colour throughout, and when at last it has obtained the much-esteemed nut-brown hue, with what pride does he exhibit and praise its beauty!” (John Paget, Hungary and Transylvania, 1839).
“Of all pipes, however, the meerschaum is the best. It is, without question, the finest bowl from which to inhale the balmy weed” (George T. Fischer et al., Smoking and Smokers, 1845).
“They [meerschaum pipes] may be purchased at any price, according to size, quality, and workmanship, from a single shilling to L.30 or L.50, and even more. They already exist in millions and tens of millions; they form a part of every personnel of almost every breathing German man above the rank of a boor; they are part of every traveller’s equipment, go where he may; they are pushing the clay-pipes out of use on Holland, Belgium, and France; they have invaded Spain and Italy in irresistible numbers; and they inundate our own territories through their length and breadth” (“Tobacco-Pipes,” Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature Science and Arts, Vol. V, Nos. 105–130, January–June 1856).
“Now I tell you a poem must be kept and used, like a meerschaum, or a violin. A poem is just as porous as the meerschaum; the more porous it is, the better. …Certain things are good for nothing until they have been kept a long while and used. Of these I will name three,—meerschaum pipes, violins, and poems. The meerschaum comes to us without complexion or flavor, born of the sea foam, like Aphrodite, but colorless as pallida Mors herself.” …The meerschaum is but a poor affair until it has burned a thousand offerings to the cloud-compelling deities. …First a discoloration, then a stain, and at last a rich, glowing umber tint spreading over the whole surface. Nature true to her old brown autumnal hue, you see—as true in the fire of the meerschaum as in the sunshine of October!” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Meerschaum,” 1858).
Mark Twain had once said “Nobody ever gives me a meerschaum pipe. Don’t I deserve one yet?” In November 1863, he was in Virginia City, Nevada. “At a convivial get together, several of Mark Twain’s friends gave him a handsome, but fake, meerschaum pipe. Before discovering the hoax, he made an elaborate speech of thanks, which began, said Dan deQuille, ‘with the introduction of tobacco into England by Sir Walter Raleigh, and wound up with George Washington’.”
“There is a ‘dainty dish’ used by the higher order of smokers, called the meerschaum pipe, which, when coloured by use a nutty brown with oil, valued at £5 to £10” (“The Price of Tobacco,” The Farmer’s Magazine, Vol. 25, January to June, 1864).
“The manner of smoking produces the greatest difference in effects. …The next most wholesome pipe is the celebrated meerschaum bowl, with an amber mouth-piece and a clay, porous stem that is adjustable” (The New York Medical Journal, 1866).
“The newly introduced charcoal pipe is already an aspiring rival of the meerschaum, but the genuine ‘sea foam’ will long maintain its ground” (“Real Meerschaum,” American Artisan, October 2, 1867).
“Consider, in the first place, a meerschaum pipe in its native purity of hue. It is a symbol of one of the most universal, and, we might almost add, one of the most intellectual pleasures known to humanity. …The meerschaum is to the ordinary clay what the diamond is to agate, or gold to copper. …Yet the meerschaum has the special glory that, if skillfully handled, it is ornamented in the very process of enjoyment” (“Colouring Pipes,” The Saturday Review, March 11, 1871).
“The German pipe is the most important for the art workmanship it occasionally exhibits; and the Meerschaum is the king of European articles of the kind” (“The Meerschaum Pipe,” Morton’s Almanack Compendium, 1876).
“A perfect Meerschaum pipe is decidedly one of the choicest and rarest gifts of the gods; but like all choice and rare gifts, it is a source of considerable anxiety to the owner. Like women, its ‘name is frailty.’ As originally taken in hand, and presented to the lips, nothing can exceed the loveliness of its looks—its delicious smoothness, its graceful rotundity of form, and apparent innocence from everything that can tarnish its reputation” (Andrew Steinmetz, The Smoker’s Guide, Philosopher and Friend, 1876).
“A new, complete, uniform, and final edition is now underway, of which two volumes, Reveries of a Bachelor and Seven Stories, are in hand. The delight to be had from the first of these books is something unique and indescribable; to be enjoyed it must be read with study-gown, slippers, open-fire, and meerschaum pipe connections (“Current Literature,” The Literary World, September 22, 1883).
“With regard to the difference that exists between the two makes of pipes, we should say that much depends on the length of the purchaser’s pocket. Meerschaum is more expensive than wood (“Novice,” The Bazaar, The Exchange and Mart, November 5, 1883).
“…I give the following five kinds as meet to be smoked, at different times, and in different cases: … (4) A skull’s-head pipe of white clay or meerschaum. And this is to be used when in danger of falling in love, or being beguiled by ‘the monster woman,’…” (Arthur Machen, Anatomy of Tobacco, 1884).
“Pipes are quite the rage—a pipe of a particular kind, that has been smoked for a year or so, will sell here [Germany] for twenty guineas—the same pipe when new costs four or five. They are called Meerschaum” (Ernest Hartley Coleridge, ed., Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1895).
“Meerschaum pipes are the pets of luxurious and poetic smokers” (W. A. Penn, The Soverane Herbe, 1901).
“But the queen of all pipes is the meerschaum, with its suggestion of sea-born Aphrodite. It is the pipe of romance and poetry, the heirloom, the costly gift of friendship, margined with gold and reposing on a bed of velvet or satin” (“Divagations of a Book Lover,” Pine Tree Magazine, Vol. VII, No. 2, March 1907).
“The town of Vallecas, in Spain, is almost entirely built of meerschaum. Vallecas has on its outskirts great quarries of a meerschaum too coarse for pipe-making, and a meerschaum-built town is the result—an ivory-white town that shines in the Spanish sun. Think of the possibilities for color in the chimmies!” (“A Meerschaum Town,” The American Architect, April 28, 1909).
“The beauty of London, if one may say so, is the beauty of a richly-coloured meerschaum. It smells rankly of old romantic sin. With its freakish rings of rich brown, it is, side by side with a nice clean new meerschaum, a disgrace” (Richard Le Gallienne, Attitudes and Avowals, 1910).
“Meerschaum, n. (Literally, seafoam, and by many erroneously supposed to be made of it.) A fine white clay, which for convenience in coloring it brown is made into tobacco pipes and smoked by the workmen engaged in that industry. The purpose of coloring it has not been disclosed by the manufacturers” (Ambrose Beard, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911).
This, in brief is the story of the meerschaum pipe, which in the time of our fathers was the family heirloom and which still occupies an honored place among the world’s most fastidious smokers” (“Coloring Meerschaum Pipes,” The Practical Druggist, February 1912).
“While Anastasia plies her daily routine, her husband, the writer, takes a walk, pausing at times ‘to fill (with reverence) the meerschaum pipe, which is colouring as coyly as a sun-kissed peach’” (Robert Service, The Pretender, 1915).
“One of the things which contributed largely to making smoking popular was beauty—the beauty of the meerschaum pipe” (100 Years With The Sutliff Tobacco Company, 1948).
“No man who does not have at least one genuine meerschaum in his possession can be called a true lover of pipes” (Carl Weber, Weber’s Guide to Pipes and Pipe Smoking, 1962).
“…meerschaum is the most sublime of the creatures of God…” “Because there is a difference between pipes, a difference based upon concrete canons of judgment and not just on subjective whim. A meerschaum is different from a $20 briar, and a $20 briar is different from a $1.98 briar. And not just difference, in fact: the meerschaum is better that the $20 briar is better than the cheapy” (Arthur D. Yunker, Toward a Theology of Pipesmoking, 1970).
“’Oh, no!’ I screamed. ‘Not that pompous, intolerable asshole. For christsakes, Sallie, he rides a motorcycle and smokes a meerschaum pipe, a goddamn meerschaum pipe’” (Pat Conroy, The Great Santini, 1976).
“It was a superb meerschaum pipe, admirably seasoned, as black as its master’s teeth, but scented, curved, gleaming, sitting familiarly in his hand, and completing the outline of his face” (Rosemary Lloyd [translator], Revolutions in Writing. Readings in Nineteenth-Century French Prose, 1996).
“The Meerschaum pipe, the ‘aristocrat’ of pipes, was preferred by stylish male smokers at the turn of the century. …Numerous poems were dedicated to the meerschaum. It also became a popular collectible at the turn of the century and was further memorialized by American painters, such as Hirst and Harnett” (Martha M. Evans, Claude Raguet Hirst. Transforming the American Still Life, 2004).
Last, I can’t resist including this online entry, Cigrman/Lurker’s artful description posted on September 2, 2011, on pipesmagazine.com: “Meerschaum is my favorite. Briar is freehand art—Meerschaum is exact like ‘Titian’.”
Isaac Hawkins Browne, A Pipe of Tobacco: In Imitation of Six Several Authors (1736) was the first book of pipe poetry. Since then, there have been several compilations including Walter Hamilton, A Lyttel Parcel of Poems and Parodyes in Praise of Tobacco (1889), Joseph Knight (comp.), Pipe and Pouch. The Smoker’s Own Book of Poetry (1894), an anthology of more than 130 poems about pipes, tobacco, and cigars, and several others published in the late 1800s and early 1900s. More than a century later, there’s still interest in pipe poetry: Hugh Morrison (ed.), The Pipe Smoker’s Companion: Poetry and Prose in Praise of the Pipe (2014).
The following poems, in instances, lack the publication date or the poet’s full name, or anon. is the author. The good news is that a few of these poems can be read online. Those I list are poems wholly, solely, and only about the meerschaum, not poems that might mention meerschaum in passing. If I had added every poem that included that word, this list would be tenfold longer.
|Anon.||“Elegy (On a Pipe, accidently burnt.)”|
|Anon.||“Pa’s Meerschaum Pipe”|
|Anon.||“Scorn Not the Meerschaum”|
|Joseph M. Chapple||“Meerschaum Pipe” (1909)|
|R. P. D.||“To My Meerschaum”|
|Paul Laurence Dunbar||“A Companion’s Progress”|
|W. E. Henley||“My Meerschaum Pipe” (1875)|
|Herbert Müller Hopkins||“The Smoker’s Reverie”|
|Judy (London)||“A Loss” (1873)|
|Rudyard Kipling||“The Maid of the Meerschaum” (1884)|
|James Russell Lowell||“To A Friend Who Sent Me a Meerschaum (1864); later altered: “To C. F. Bradford. On the Gift of a Meerschaum Pipe” (1888)|
|Charles F. Lummis||“My Meerschaums”|
|Johnson M. Mundy||“My Meerschaum Pipe”|
|New Orleans Times Democrat||“The Dreamer’s Pipe”|
|PinkFaerie5||“Exploring A Smoking Meerschaum Pipe”|
|Maria Theresa Rice||“With A Meerschaum” (1869)|
|Guy H. Salisbury||“My Meerschaum”|
|James Brunton Stephens||“The Headless Trooper” (1880)|
|Dixey Taylor||“Daddy’s Christmas”|
|James Thomson||“Polycrates on Waterloo Bridge” (1865)|
|Arthur Watkins Whitehouse||“On the Destruction of My Meerschaum Pipe” (1885)|
|Leo Yankevich||“Old Meerschaum Pipe”|
The last stanza of British poet F. W. W. Pattenden’s “My Favourite Pipe” is an apropos summary: “My brain in a muddle is whirling—\’Twas either a meerschaum and straight,\Or else ‘twas a briar and curling;\But which, I’m unable to state.\There’s one thing, however, I safely can say for it—Meerschaum or briar—that pipe was my Favourite.”
The Queen of Pipes was also celebrated in music: Herve D. Wilkins, “Meerschaum (Sea Foam)” (1863), and Wm. H. Hills, “Meerschaum Pipe” (1881); in a lengthy essay by Bret Harte, “Facts Concerning A Meerschaum” (1860); and at least one late 19th-century pun: “Meerschaum pipes, it is said, are made out of the foam of the sea. The manufacture of them, therefore, must be a surge-ical operation.”
In closing, here are a couple factoids. Across the country briar has greater bragging rights than meerschaum. Why? There’s a city named Briar in Arkansas, another in Missouri, and a third in Texas. There are two cities named Brier, one in Massachusetts and one in Washington state. There are no U.S. cities named Meerschaum, but meerschaum can claim something that briar cannot. In the early 1900s, there were deposits of this mineral in an area now known as Meerschaum Canyon, northwest of Las Cruces, New Mexico. So, whereas the heath tree is not native to the United States and must be imported, at a time long ago, meerschaum was a local source of supply to a large segment of our industry’s pipe carvers and makers.